Uncertainty swirled around the lobster fishing industry again Tuesday as the old issue of supply and demand came into play.
Fishermen in parts of Pictou County, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island were told by buyers late Monday that they wouldn’t be buying their product because of a glut in the market and the lack of people to process the product.
Caribou wharf had three buyers on the wharf purchasing lobster, but in Toney River some fishermen skipped the day because the buyer, the Northumberland Co-op, was not open for business.
Ronnie Heighton, president of the Northumberland Fishermen’s Union, said the buyers are “in the driver’s seat” and dictate when fish will be bought.
“The buyers told us they didn’t want to buy fish for a couple of days, but the processing plants bought,” he said. “We will keep an eye on it. We are at the mercy of the buyer. We don’t have big holding facilities here so we can’t fish and keep it for extended periods of time without selling it.”
He said if this continues to be a trend, the area might have to look at going after some federal funding to build such holding facilities, similar to what is in southwest Nova Scotia.
“They just finished their fishing season, but they could be sitting on product for a few months,” Heighton said.
Mike Duffy, general manager of North Nova Seafoods in Braeshore, said Tuesday that there are two issues affecting the lobster fishing industry in the Maritimes.
One is that catches are up across the province which includes larger than normal catches in the southwest, which tends to keep the product in good supply throughout the year.
The second problem is the lack of workers at processing plants, Duffy said.
“If this industry is going to be able to handle the amount of lobster landed, the processing capacity at working plants needs to increase,” he said.
He said North Nova Seafoods processed 31,000 pounds of lobster Monday with some of the biggest catches ever by local fishermen coming into the plant, but with a workforce of only 95 people, it’s difficult to get the work done.
He said the ideal workforce would include 150 workers, but he currently has only 95 people employed at the plant. An additional 22 foreign workers are tied up in red tape as the local lobster fishing season enters its second and final month.
“We don’t have enough workers,” he said. “We have 53 foreign workers now and approval to bring in 25 more, but we have 22 of them sitting at the Bangkok airport and half the lobster season is over.”
He said North Nova Seafoods placed ads in the media over the winter months for Canadian workers and received 100 applications, but only 37 Canadians responded when they were asked to come to work. Out of the 37 people, only 23 people actually showed up to work.
“The federal government is working out of Ottawa and has no concept of what goes on at a seafood processing plant,” he said. “They just look at the unemployment rate and tell you to hire local people. We agree with this 100 per cent and would much prefer to hire local people, who will show up for work on a regular basis. They say that should be our first objective but we are spending thousands of dollars on airfare and accommodations to bring in foreign workers because Canadian’s don’t see working in a fish plant as acceptable employment.”
He said the plant will continue to purchase lobsters from fishermen who have been loyal to its business over the years, but it won’t be taking on any new boats at this time.
Lobster fishermen in P.E.I. Tuesday told they were told the same thing from processors.
Last year, most lobster boats tied up as fishermen protested low prices, leaving many Islanders to celebrate Mother’s Day without their favourite crustacean. Father’s Day now looms with the industry once again in uncertain waters.
Mike McGeoghegan told the Guardian newspaper that there were two Maritime lobster reports done last year which means the industry should know what the capacity should be.
“This industry is 100 years old. We should be able to run this thing a whole lot better than we’re doing,’’ he said, adding that there was a heavy glut of lobster when fishermen returned to the waters in May 2013 without the problems the industry is seeing right now.
“Processors can’t keep up. That seems to be the story. After last year you would think we would have a contingency plan in place.’’
Calls to other live lobsters buyers by The News on Tuesday were not returned.
Meanwhile, NDP fisheries critic Sterling Belliveau says the Liberal government needs to be taking a more proactive approach to implementing the recommendations of the Maritime Lobster Panel. He says, if more action isn’t taken soon, he’s concerned unofficial quotas currently being placed on lobster fishermen in P.E.I. could become more widespread and permanent. He fears the independence of the lobster fishery could be compromised.
“The Lobster panel released its report on November 7, 2013, but other than a vague commitment to implement a marketing levy, there has been very little action,” said Belliveau. “I appreciate the challenge the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture is facing but I’d like to see more action in terms of meeting with the harvesters and processors and working with other provinces and the federal government to bring about positive change.”
Belliveau says improved freezing facilities for bait would help lower harvesters’ costs and increased holding capacity in Cape Breton, eastern and northern Nova Scotia would help alleviate many of the pressures associated with the current bountiful harvest.